Jupiter’s moon Io is the most volcanically active body in the solar system. Could it also be a habitat for life?
When it comes to where extraterrestrial life might dwell in our own solar system, Jupiter's moon Europa often grabs the spotlight. However, its extraordinarily volcanic sibling Io might be a possible habitat as well.
A bit larger than Earth's moon, Io is the innermost of Jupiter's large satellites and the most volcanically active body in the solar system, with plumes of matter rising up to 186 miles (300 km) above the surface. This extreme activity is the result of Jupiter's powerful gravitational pull, which causes Io's tormented solid crust to bulge up and down 328 feet (100 meters) or more, generating intense heat in Io due to friction. Although the heat near the volcanoes can reach some 3000 degrees F (1649 degrees C), high enough to keep lava liquid, Io's surface temperature averages at about negative 202 degrees F (-130 degrees C), leading to sulfur dioxide snowfields. This means Io is a land of both fire and ice.
Io is generally considered a poor candidate for life because of all the radiation Jupiter blasts it with. In addition, no organic molecules have been detected on its surface, and it has only an extremely thin atmosphere devoid of detectable water vapor.
"Everyone right away tends to categorically exclude the possibility of life on Io," said astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch at Washington State University.
Still, conditions on Io might have made it a friendlier habitat in the distant past. If life did ever develop on Io, there is a chance it might have survived to the present day, Schulze-Makuch suggested.
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